I made a Night Vale / Zombies Run! AU, because both stories begin with a newcomer in town, and involve a guiding voice on the radio. It'll be around 20k when it's done, and there's 8k up on AO3 so far: here.
When Carlos had said that he wanted more time in the field, he hadn't counted on this.
The helicopter gives a sickening lurch sideways - the pilot is still speaking fast and clear into her headset, maydaymayday, our tail rotor's gone, two souls on board - it's all he can do to hold on to his seat and try not to throw up, and then the ground's rushing fast towards their windshield and the radio's cut out, she's bundling him out of his seat and out of the door, wait wait he hasn't trained for this, all he can see is the ground - he yanks on the cord, and tangles up immediately in the trees. There's no sign of his pilot: Carlos unclips from the chute, shaking, and lands heavily on a grassy bank.
He sits up, shaking off the dizziness, and then realises that the radio headset he'd been wearing is still speaking: it's the voice of the operator that had been guiding in the helicopter. He finds the volume control on the side of the headset, and listens.
"... -copter, supply copter, can you hear us? This is the Night Vale comms tower calling - look, Dana, they can't hear us, they must have fried the equipment in the crash - "
Something unintelligible; a hiss of static.
"Okay, listen, um, look: this is Night Vale calling, this is, eh, Cecil Palmer from the Night Vale comms tower, and - look, I'm just the radio operator, I'm not meant to handle this kind of thing - if anyone's alive, you've come down in a nest of hostiles. There's... thirty. No, forty. There's forty hostiles approaching fast and you've got a safe path to that tower: if there's anyone alive there, you've got to run. Run!"
Carlos wasn’t prepared for this. He's a scientist - or, well, he was. Before the plague, he was a scientist: he worked as an astrophysicist in a gleaming lab, analysed data and taught sometimes, drank a lot of coffee. It wasn't bad, really: he remembers feeling bored, and sometimes frustrated: the slow pace of the work, the time it took the academy to approve basic funding requests. When the infection had spread, and the labs, and then the cities, were closed down; when the ragged survivors drove and then walked out to find what shelter they could; then, he'd remembered how feeling bored was the worst of his troubles.
He's made himself useful: in a couple of small settlements, and then the military base. He'd worked on making their generators more efficient, or their kitchens run more smoothly, and in the base, his supervisors had him locked down in the lab. They were stil holding out hope for a cure: they had two dozen scientists there with the last of their equipment, disciplines ranging from volcanology to psychology, all quickly retrained in disease control and doing what they could. Increasingly, they'd felt useless: the power the labs drained, the resources they ate up on empty hope. Eventually, the lot of them had asked for relocation: couldn't bear to keep working while the others went hungry. Carlos was among the last to be relocated: he'd be briefed when he landed in Night Vale, they'd said.
Carlos runs, and the voices go in and out of static - "they can hear me! They heard - look, they're moving towards the tower now, just look at them go!" The radio operator is joined by a new voice: female, slower-speaking, more precise. "Cecil, I think we have two - no, three - three sprinters out towards the east. We can ask the runner to twist around by the southernmost side of the hospital. Hopefully they can lose them there - "
Carlos is already changing direction: he's never seen a sprinter in reality, but the pale looks of the radio operators back at Mullins, every time a scout had been lost to one, have told him enough. This wasn't something he wanted to encounter.
His legs are aching, his heart's pounding: it's not that he's unused to running, it's just that he doesn't usually run this fast, or this far, or, well, zombies. He pauses, wondering whether he should risk taking a short cut through the hospital.
As if on cue, Cecil's speaking again. "They haven't yet seen you, if you can still hear me - yeah? Maybe? - you should be fine to just come around and - oh! Major: an unexpected - "
There's a new voice now, brisk and commanding. "Palmer here tells me you're coming towards Night Vale from a helicopter crash: is that right? You're very welcome here, of course, but we have to tell you: we run an efficient township here, with everyone doing their part and working together. Look, whoever you are. Runner Eight has informed us she's heard about some unusual documents from one of the runners in a township further along Route 800. I'm sorry to ask you this, so soon after the crash, but: if you're able to take a short cut through the hospital, see if you can't get into Office 32 and pick up their last reports from the CDC. We think there's something important there. And - runner? As we said: everyone here in Night Vale pitches in, and pulls their weight. It works. I'm sorry to have to say this, but if you're not able to find those files, we may not be able to let you in."
Well. It's not as though the policy's a surprise - many of the little isolated towns had adopted efficiency after learning that sentimentality could be fatal - it's just that... he'd thought they were expecting him. The way the Major was speaking, it sounded as though they thought he was just some traveller helicoptering through the wilderness.
Carlos hears the muffled sounds of Dana speaking with the Major, and a door closing, and then Cecil's back again, speaking in conversational tone. "Okay: can't see you any more, now - you're out of range for the remote mic pickup as well, even if you had one. Well, for all I know, you may already be being eaten by the zombs... I hope not, of course."
He tails off, and Carlos, making his way cautiously through unlit corridors, poking his head into the offices that line the space, hopes he comes back soon. He is so very alone out here. That voice had at least given the illusion that he had company.
There! Office 32, and there's a filing cabinet, still upright, wedged behind a desk. One drawer's open, and he can see the distinctive bright yellow, used for all CDC correspondence, clear in the gloom. Carlos takes a deep breath, hefts a length of pipe he'd found outside, and steps in: scans the room, and finding it empty, goes straight for the cabinet. It's packed with yellow files: he has no idea what he's looking for, so he stuffs the whole lot into his backpack, hoping that at least one will be enough to buy him entry.
A door clicks behind him, and he turns, raising the pipe - no, it was his earpiece, and now there's Dana's voice. "How's that runner doing?"
"Hello - they're doing really well! The Major sent them to cut through the hospital - do you think they can still hear us? Um: keep going, you can make it! File or not, they'll have to let you in, they wouldn't mow you down at the gates or anything like that - would they?"
"Look!", Dana says, excited. "I can see them: they've made it out of the hospital, they've just come past those trees! Look, they're going at such a strong pace - oh, Cecil, do you think...?"
"Hmm? Oh, them? Well, there's an idea... we'd have to let them in then, right?"
"Keep going!", Dana says. "Listen: just for now, we're going to call you Runner Five. We have runners, you see, here in Night Vale: they find us supplies and information and anything else we need, and the number system makes things easier for the operators. I'm just in radio training myself. We'll call you Runner Five, because the old Runner Five, well - "
And here, for the first time, Carlos hears Dana's voice, so sure and precise, falter.
"The old Runner Five. Well, just last week, she went out to the motorway, and, well. There's no sign of her back yet. It's been - six days, and just over four hours, since we lost radio contact. But - ", and here, she sounds as though she's shaking herself a little, putting on a cheery, encouraging air - "you can be our new Runner Five! If... if you can get here, that is. It's another two miles to the north-east, then down the hill: you should be able to see our main communications tower from where you are, now. There's a big group behind you, but they're all shamblers, so you can outrun them easily. One moment, there's something else on the radar - okay, Five, there's another smaller group coming in from the west. They're faster, but they're not sprinters. They're moving to cut you off to the town, but if you move fast, you'll be able to beat them here. Just: yes, that's great, keep going!"
The bag's weighing heavy on his back, and his hair is falling into a mess all over his eyes, when Carlos clears the hill and gets his first good look at Night Vale. It's small: there's a group of ramshackle buildings, crowded around a farmhouse from before the infection. There's a communications tower at the north-east corner, from which he presumes Cecil and Dana are transmitting, and there are large roll-down gates in the wall facing him, with a smaller, ordinary door beside them. A guard tower stands over the gates, with mounted guns aiming downwards. He waves to the tower, hoping they'll be friendly, and sets off down the hill.
He can see the smaller crowd that Dana had mentioned: the zombs seem to have caught his scent, as they're already moving with purpose towards him.
Carlos groans in frustration: to reach the town gates, he'll have to go towards the oncoming zombs, and race them there. There's no guarantee the Major will let him in. As friendly as Cecil and Dana had sounded, they were asking him to run towards the zombs based on little more than trust and hope.
He could go the other way. He's guaranteed to escape: he could climb a tree or something, find a barn with a loft, wait for them to wander off, and - oh, for goodness' sake. After all this, they had better let him in. Carlos huffs out a sigh and sprints down the hill, hoping that Night Vale's snipers are as accurate as those back home.
"Oh my God", Dana says, suddenly. "Oh - oh no. Look: there, it's her. The old Runner Five. You see? Right at the head of them. Oh, Stacey..."
"Dana, I'm so sorry", Cecil says, and then to Carlos, "that's good, keep going! You're almost there!"
"Stacey, I thought - she was so resourceful - I mean, it's not even as though we ever - "
Dana's voice is drowned out by a sudden burst of gunfire right above Carlos' head, and he trips and rolls into a ditch by the gate - he hadn't seen that, why hadn't they warned him? Maybe they had, he can't quite hear their words anymore - there's suddenly an unmistakeable moan coming from right behind him, it's cut off by a single gunshot, and then the gates - the gates, they're rising! He can see sky on the other side, coming in through the tall, imposing mix of concrete and brickwork and glass bottles that make up the main wall - and, gasping, he pulls himself up out of the ditch and through the gates.
There's cheering in his earpiece, and they're saying something else, but Carlos takes off the headset, suddenly exhausted, and falls to his knees in the dirt. People are running to him from the nearby buildings, crowding around and all speaking at once -
"We saw the helicopter go down on the comms, are you all right?"
"-have to call the Major, she said she needs to know about all potential newcomers -"
"came in from the army base? Didn't even realise they were sending someone - "
- and behind the cacophony, there are two familiar voices, two people running towards the crowd from the comms tower -
"Give him space! Go on, out the way, give our new Runner Five some space and a welcome, he's just come in through the hospital and everything - ", and that's Cecil speaking. Carlos looks up, and sees a man with a worried expression, long black hair and with his frayed shirtsleeves pushed up, revealing colourful tattoos. His companion is slightly shorter: she's got dark, red-rimmed eyes and medium brown skin, with natural, short-cropped hair and wearing a knitted sweater.
They're not sent out much, Carlos realises: they're cleaner, a little more well-groomed, than the others. Most of the crowd is scruffy: they match the town, rough around the edges, still in the stages of being built in many places. Carlos thinks back to the lab in the base he'd shared with the other scientists: it had been rough, as well - they'd made do, but it was clean and reasonably well-stocked - and, with no way back for the foreseeable future, he wonders just what he has gotten himself into.
"Give him space, give him space - that's our new Runner Five you're smothering, go on - " - it's Cecil's voice carrying clear and deep through the crowd, and Carlos leans back on his heels, still breathing heavily, exhausted from his run, and looks up.
"I need to see whoever's in charge. It's the Major, you said, is that right?", Carlos says, addressing Cecil, as everyone else seems to be looking to him. Dana lets out a sniff, wipes her eyes and squares her shoulders.
"Of course", Cecil says, coming to help him up. "Can you walk? We can - "
"She's back at the comms tower", Dana says quickly, and, to the others, "go on, off you go: you'll be seeing enough of him soon. Anyone would think you're all starved for entertainment around here - "
"Here: you can rest on me", Cecil says, fluttering a little around Carlos as they start to walk. "You must be exhaused: we'll sort you out with food as soon as we can - "
"Cecil", Dana says, and he goes quiet. She glares at Carlos. "Hi. Listen: I'm sorry, but we don't know who you are, or why you're here. Now, the two of us aren't necessarily going to ask you lots of questions - I know there are plenty here already who would prefer privacy - but do bear in mind, it won't be long before people begin to wonder. If I were you, I'd have a think about my answers soon."
"What?", Carlos says. "But - the town should have been expecting me, didn't the base ring ahead to let you know I was coming? They said I'd be briefed here - "
"All the external communications go through us, and there was definitely nothing about a helicopter coming in today. Are you sure it was here they were planning to send you?"
"Yes, of course - how could they have not - "
"Well, as I said: best work out your story. Come on, it's this way - "
They're not going to the communications tower. Instead, they're skirting around the farmhouse edges, to the back, where there's a cluster of equipment sheds and corrugated-iron shelters, all shored up with sandbags. Dana leads them to the largest one, and knocks briskly on the door.
A well-scrubbed older woman opens it up, looking harried. "Oh", she says, looking at Carlos. "Well. Come on then - not you, Palmer, I need you and Cardinal to send out a broadcast as soon as you can. Here - ", she strides to a table, rifles through some papers to find a sheet, and hands it over. Dana glances at it. "What?", she says. "We can't tell them it's reduced rations again this week: it's only been two days since we cut them - "
"Spin it as you like, Cardinal: it needs saying", says the now-familiar voice of Major Winchell. She's striding over to the desk: she's a tall woman, with close-cropped dark hair, and olive skin a few shades lighter than that of her assistant. "If you want, you can tell them Eight is going out tomorrow to see if there's anything left where Route 800 dips into the canyon. Haven't told her yet, but we'll see if we can sort out his itinerary tonight. Or put it in the evening show: either way. Cardinal: we're counting on the team at NVCR to keep morale up, even when it's difficult. Can we count on you?"
Dana opens her mouth to protest, but Winchell cuts her off immediately. "Cecil. Dana. Can I count on you?"
"Yes, Major. Of course", Cecil says quickly, before Dana can argue. "Look, um, Five - we'll catch up with you later, all right?"
Carlos just nods, more worried by the minute. "Right", the Major says. "Come on in then, let's see if we can't work out just what's going on here. Thank you, Trish - ", and the older woman closes the door and comes back to join them, in the mismatched chairs by the desk.
Carlos sits, nervous, and looks around. There's a map of the town on one wall, beside a map of the surrounding area. The desk has a few dusty dark green rocks scattered at one end - no, not scattered: they seem to be arranged in a circle. Odd. The rest is covered in papers: the topmost appearing to show some kind of inventory. That'll be the food list. He can understand why the Major is stressed: he knows, at least in the abstract, that food shortages over the last few months had killed at least as many people as direct zombie attacks. They'd wanted for nothing back at Mullins, of course - and, not for the first time, Carlos feels a rush of apprehension.
"No-one told us you were coming", the Major says, leaning back on one of the chairs opposite and accepting a canteen of water from her assistant. She counts off her points with a flick of one hand. "It's not often we see people being flown over anywhere by chopper these days. No records of any contact with Mullins in the last three months. No help from them, either - not that we'd expect it, we're quite self-sufficient here, small community that we are, but you can understand, Mr - "
"Doctor", says Carlos, more sharply than he'd intended. "Dr. Mendoza."
"You understand, Dr. Mendoza, our position. All this begs the question: just what - exactly - are you doing here?"
After a long, stupid pause, Carlos comes out with, "... they said I'd be briefed on landing?"
There's answering silence, so he continues: "I was based in the research department, we were studying the epidemiology of the outbreaks as applied to the large population centres on the west coat, but the informational yield was dreadful, oh, you should have seen it - so, most of my team asked to be reassigned. Two went to Desert Bluffs out south, and I was sent here - "
Trish, who had been rifling through Carlos' backpack, let out a sound of surprise at the mention of the neighbouring town. "No-one told you?", she says, but the Major shoots her a brief glare, and speaks again before Carlos can ask.
"Palmer said you were a good runner", the Major says. "Stay, for tonight - Trish can find you a bunk - and we'll talk more in the morning. We'll see if you can be of any use to the Runners Program."
The bunkhouse is a long, low building, leaning against the base of the communications tower. There are no free bunks, but Cecil - who had been waiting outside the Major's office, pacing nervously - helps Carlos string up a hammock close to the ceiling in the radio station's corridor. He'd sent Dana ahead to do the broadcast, he explains, blushing slightly every time he catches Carlos' eyes: she's still in training, and any chances to get her running the show solo was doing wonders for her confidence.
Trish hadn't returned his backpack. Carlos hadn't wanted to ask, with the Major so terse.
"I'm sure it'll all be fine!", Cecil says, brightly, as he balances on a rafter, tying off a rope. "Well, not absolutely everything - that'd be ridiculous, given all that's happened - but I'm sure the Major will let you stay! We've plenty of space in the Runners Program, there's always a need for more people, given that the Runners keep... being lost. Well, anyway, they always find more people useful! And, we're a small community here, a little set in our ways, but we're friendly. We won't just throw newcomers out, whatever the Major says. Now, I'm sure you'll be wanting some sleep - Dana will be around in the morning to introduce you to our head of Runners, if I'm indisposed. But I'm sure I'll see you then! Sleep well, lovely Carlos - oh, and do let us know if you need anything: anything at all!", he says, heading outside.
"The Runners are the lifeblood of Night Vale's beating heart", explains the head of the Runners Program. Steve Carlsberg is a tall, wiry man, with several days' growth of beard and a heavy Southwestern accent. "Without a steady supply of fuel, we are the primary means of gathering the vital supplies our community needs to keep on functioning. We're always in need of more bodies to help, and I've been told you're a potential for the team. Now, I'll level with you: it's a dangerous job, and hard work. It's where the Major sends folks that she don't know what else to do with, and it's where any folks to ain't pulling their weight can come to make up their hours. Our Tamika's only thirteen and she's been running double shifts to support her father and sister - and my Ruth's always staying out late in the field with her, doesn't know what else to do with herself. Tamika's going to take you out for a quick run, now - nothing too dangerous, just to get out to the tree line and back. See how you go."
Carlos is almost as intimidated by Tamika as he had been of the Major. She's a short, stocky teenager, with natural hair scraped into a tight bun and dark eyes fixing him with a no-nonsense glare. A few minutes later, and he's grateful for the distraction: Cecil's in his headset, calling "raise the gates!" and it's all Carlos can do to not panic at the sight of all the unguarded open space. Couple of sprinters in that, and he'd be a dead man right away.
"Come on, then", Tamika calls, making her way around the trench in front of the gate, and Carlos struggles, briefly, between fear of the open space and embarrassment at showing a thirteen-year-old he's scared. The embarrassment wins out, and he follows at a run.
The zombies that the guard towers had mown down yesterday are out there. They stink, and the ground is wet and sticky, and it's lumpy. Running here is nothing like the steady, pounding rhythm of doing laps at Mullins, and for the first ten minutes, Carlos is quiet, concentrating too much on avoiding the bumps and holes in the earth to speak.
He wasn't prepared for this. What he was even thinking, leaving the comparatively comfortable military base, exchanging that for a terse welcome, a draughty hammock and this grunt work -
"Were you a scientist?", Tamika asks, bluntly.
"Yes", Carlos says, puffing a little. "I used to be a theoretical astrophysicist, and I taught a little at SF State as well. After all this started, they moved anyone who wanted to help out into the labs with the military, got people studying virology, epidemiology, transmission vectors - stuff we hadn't even done since college. I was on a team looking at infection patterns, but none of it seemed to help. Eventually, all of us got tired of using up resources, and asked to be reassigned."
He's practised this part of the story, repeating it to himself until it rolled easily. Wouldn't do to be too personal: not when lots of people are going to be asking for a quick summary. For her part, Tamika grunts in reply.
They pass a few more minutes in companionable silence, jogging gently around the tree-line, keeping the town on their left.
"Did Steve tell you about the Runners Program?", Tamika asks.
"Yeah", he says, panting now that they're approaching an incline. "Said the runners - get the supplies - right?"
"That's right", she says, "anything the base needs, and plenty it doesn't, too, but that folks might find fun or interesting. And we look anywhere we can. Been combing the countryside for months, now, and we're doing some longer missions too, see what's further. Should last a good while, but some's worried we might have to move, eventually, if we don't get more supplies easily. They'll run out in the end, and we're not like your big military base, with space for loads of farms and everything."
"Did I see some farms by the tower yesterday? Will they be up and running in time?"
"We're hoping. It's one reason the Major's so careful about new mouths to feed: gotta make sure folks are worth it, you know? So: you think you want to run, right?"
"I want to be useful?", Carlos says. "And it sounds like Mullins won't plan on sending a chopper or anything again anytime soon. Not that there's much to go back to there anyway - never did develop many more practical skills, not like some folks I knew in SF who could build a whole city up out of the earth, easy as anything. Had a neighbour who kept a fully stocked RV: first sign of any trouble, and she was off up into the woods."
"Oh, for god's sake", Tamika mutters suddenly, "no, not you", and she reaches up to adjust something at her ear. "This guy won't stop going on about you, keeps telling me to ask all these questions - "
"Uh", Carlos says. She carries on as though she hadn't heard. "Dana said she thought he had a thing for you this morning, didn't think it'd be this bad. It's okay", she says, quickly, seeing the look on Carlos' face, "he can't hear us from out here. They can talk to us up to five miles out, but we can only talk back up to a mile out, and we just passed the mile marker on that tree, see?"
Carlos hadn't been concerned about Cecil overhearing. Oh, he wasn't prepared for this, either - not this soon, not from someone who - he thinks fast, casting around for a new topic.
"Did the Major say that they also did a radio show?" He doesn't think Tamika noticed his voice shaking. "She... she said that, uh, he and Dana were the radio operators for the Runners, but they also... did a show?"
Tamika, bless her, doesn't push. "Nah: that's Lucy and Hannah. Usually Hannah's out running or she's on build, and Lucy's in the kitchen, or sewing, but every night they do a radio show. It's about an hour, right after sundown: there's no sense sending Runners out into the dark, so the whole base can listen in while they're doing chores or resting. Steve found an old iPod in a car a few weeks back, managed to get it working again: they've been playing songs off it ever since, too. They just mess about, mostly: don't think either of them knows the first thing they're doing, but folks are used to them by now. Think most of them look forward to having a familiar voice around, and some routine."
They're looping back around towards the base now, going downhill slightly, close to the trees. "Here", Tamika says, "give the headset a try, you'll want to know how to use that. It's straightforward, it's mostly just them talking." She pauses for a moment to adjust it to his head, and then they take off again: immediately, Carlos hears Cecil's voice in his ear.
"Oh! Hello, Carlos - I can see you both on camera eight-alpha, is Tamika showing you how things work?"
"We can't talk back yet", Tamika adds, "though you don't have to talk to them at all, they don't mind if you're concentrating."
"You're all looking clear: what I've got here, Carlos - do you mind if I call you Carlos? - what I've got here is a series of feeds from a whole lot of the cameras we've placed outside in the trees. They're not ideal: the cameras get motion-activated by big things, otherwise they just shoot an image every thirty seconds. Even better though: we're up in the tower and we've a long-range camera up even higher than that, so we can follow your progress and let you know if there are any problems. I mean, I'm sure it's not as high-tech as what you're used to back in the lab at the base - "
Carlos has a go at pressing the "talk" button he'd seen Tamika use earlier. "It sounds great, Cecil. Thank you for looking out for us."
There's an incoherent squeak at the end of the line, and then Cecil's back, voice a little higher than before. "Of course! Lovely, generous Carlos: do come back safe, all right?"
"All right." And, to Tamika: "straight back again?"
She's smirking a little. "Sure. Right on back."
Carlos is dreaming. He knows this because the lab at Mullins doesn't usually look like something out of a Hammer Horror film. There's green goop running down the walls, and none of the clocks are working - but most distressingly, the numbers on the instruments in front of him are flashing randomly, showing results that can't possibly be real, whichever way they're interpreted.
He's tapping away at a calculator, noting down figures in pencil and they're changing, going faster than he can follow and his knowledge is not enough, the green goop is now at his ankles and somewhere he knows there'll be zombies thumping on the windows of unshielded homes and none of these figures and charts can help, none of this is enough -
Carlos wakes up, swinging side to side in the hammock that he and Cecil had tied in the hallway of the radio shack a week previously. He checks his watch - one of the styles that charges from body movement, thank goodness, an interesting novelty when he'd bought it and now it's essential and mercifully still unbroken - and flops back down, still breathing hard.
It had only been him in the lab. Him, and the rising goop, and those awful, utterly broken clocks - but it had only been him. That was new.
He'd been useless in the labs. He reminds himself of this often, now - but what he hadn't considered, naively, short-sightedly, was how useless he would feel here, too. As though he could go out to some little settlement and immediately save them with - what? The power of trigonometry? Good spectroscopy interpretation technique? Six months kept away from a nation rebuilding, people everywhere learning the practical skills necessary to build fences, fix bikes, forage for food - they'd all left him far behind. He wasn't any use here, not really - he was an extra pair of running legs, at most. Someone else to bring in supplies, for the higher-ups, the more knowledgeable people, to allocate. This was all he could do.
Cecil had helped him ring Mullins twice, now: he'd have lent him the communications equipment every evening, had Dana allowed it. All Carlos' requests for more information - a mission statement, helicopter scouting times, the likelihood of his being pulled out, anything - had been dismissed or ignored. Anyone who knew about the scientists' reallocation had been called north for a CDC summit. Sit tight, and they'd call if the situation changed, they'd said.
Carlos sighs, and swings out of the hammock. He's aching from running every day, and having fallen out of the thing for the first few. He stretches, wondering if he'll be able to beg a coffee from Lucy Gutierrez again: she'd been especially kind to himself and Ruth after they'd found six brand-new sports bras in various uncommon sizes, half-buried under a crate two days previously.
Ready to go out?", Tamika grins, not unkindly. "Can't go 'round with your hand held by us all the time, we got things to do here. Hey: you'll be fine. Steve even sent me to do the briefing so he could train up a couple new folks who wanted to get involved. That's how fine you'll be." She pours him half the coffee remaining in her own mug, seeing that his is finished, and he smiles back at her.
"Here's us", Tamika says, pointing to a map on the wall. "That's where the main gate comes out, towards the south: you can see the band of trees there, and the abandoned farm we went to the other day off towards the east. Today, you're going the other way." She points north, where a freeway makes its way between tall rocks and alongside a dried-out stream. "Most of the cars along that way were looted months on back, but we were always interested in an ambulance that crashed at the underpass, here."
Carlos glances back towards the base on the map: it'll be three, three-and-a-half miles each way. Not too bad: they'd done the same distance to the farm. “Don't know if you know, Mr. Scientist, but all the ambulance frames got reinforced as soon as the hospitals got wind of a weird-looking outbreak going around. No way our bashing or prying or even our axes were getting in there. But: yesterday, Runner Ten brought in these", and she shows him a set of oddly shaped keys - oh, they're universal keys - "we think they might open at least the driver's door, if not the back. From there, you can get into the back: that'll be reinforced glass, not steel, 'cause they wanted to keep an eye on the passengers in case there was any trouble, see? Axes won't get us into the van, but they might get you in back. Then, we're looking for anything you can carry, first off: gotta assume that once they know it's open, the runners from Desert Bluffs will be there to clear it out. Medicines first, and any supplies you can get second. We're low on insulin, and Hannah on Build's got food allergies: could do with some more adrenaline pens for her, in case of anything."
Medical supplies from an ambulance. Okay. How hard could that be? "... Wait. If the whole thing's reinforced, and you couldn't get in the driver's door - "
"Yeah, yeah: there’s zoms there. Driver and probably in the back, too. We think they'd have rotted down to nothing by now: been trapped in there six months, after all. In any case, they'll be strapped in, and you've got an axe, right? Listen: you'll be okay. Remember you fought off those crawlers when they got Ruth's ankles? You'll do great. We'll give you a gun, too, but you know not to use it - yeah, course you know."
Even if he hadn't just lived through a zombie apocalypse, Carlos has seen enough old movies to know not to use a gun in an exposed space unless he wanted a whole horde to flock to the noise immediately. He also knew enough to save the last bullets for himself and his team. Come to think of it, a lot of those old movies were really more morbid than cheesy -
"Okay. Ready? Shoes tied? You got water? Here, let me check your headset - okay. We'll be right here watching. Raise the gates!"
Carlos has always lived in towns and cities. He is glad to have not seen a city since the infection had started to spread. Here, and around Mullins, the weeds and wildflowers had grown up and around the monoculture crops, the hay bales, and the endless, sprawling networks of fences. Without workers or fuel to take in the harvest, most of it had ripened and spoiled, save for the corners nearest the farmhouse.
For years, he had loved to read dystopian science fiction: to be chilled by the sight of overgrown monuments and rolling trains in online artwork, to see familiar SF and Boston landmarks crumbling. None of the art had featured rotting farmland. Now, the ruined cities are a fantastical, romanticised image he hopes to keep in his mind: he has no desire to return to the towns and see the reality.
"Carlos~!", Cecil says excitedly in his ear. "I'll be guiding you this morning, and making sure you're as safe as can be. Are you feeling all right? I hope you're feeling all right."
Carlos smiles, and, without breaking stride, waves back towards the tower. He's rewarded with a giggle. "Hello! I'm waving back. You're going to be great. Ruth said you were brilliant the other day, when she got caught. Now, you're going to be moving alongside those trees off towards your left: you see? Down, following that line, and that'll intersect with the freeway and you can run the rest of the way along that, nice and easy. Two more miles to the underpass, and you're there! I'd recommend having your axe to hand, though, dear Carlos. It won't be as easy to warn you of incoming dangers, what with the bridge blocking my reception."
thump, thump, thump go Carlos' strides, and he rests one palm on the head of the axe tucked through his belt. It'll be fine.
"I heard you and Ruth found extra clothes out at that barn: Lucy Gutierrez was so pleased you brought back plus-size bras, did you know that?", Cecil says conversationally in Carlos' ear. "She's been trying to sew up a bunch for ages, there's quite a few Runners who can't do as well as they'd like otherwise, it's so frustrating, oh, and she was delighted, I can't even tell you. Did you know that Lucy and her wife are experimenting with making new kinds of desserts? That's all in their off-time, of course - can't imagine how they fit it all in what with doing the radio show as well. Usually Hannah's on build, and Lucy's been sewing clothes, mending things, knitting with scraps, that sort of thing."
He tails off, thoughtful, and Carlos wonders if she'd teach him to knit.
"You know", Cecil says, light and gossipy, "some folks here were a little skeptical when she showed up with her wheelchair? She'd only driven in towns before and they thought she'd be no good on rough ground, but Hannah stood up, said they came as a package, and now, I could swear Lucy puts in twice the hours of anyone on build or out running. You know she's been teaching the little ones to sew, too? Some are knitting, with old curtains and what-have-you, they made me the most beautiful purple scarf - well, anyway, the two of them used to run an ice-cream shop, did you know that? Hand-made, all organic and sustainably farmed - can't use cow's milk nowadays, of course, but they've been looking at the coconut cream in storage, boiling up rice - whatever they can. Just trying to give everyone something nice, you know, make things feel a little more normal."
Carlos hadn't known that, but isn't surprised: he feels a rush of affection towards the kind, homely woman who had shared her coffee stores and showed him where the snacking supplies in the kitchen lived. He hopes the Major hadn't given her too much of a hard time.
"You know, that's what I really like about this place", Cecil continues. "Most of us didn't know each other before, or even know much about survival, or self-sufficiency, but we’ve all pulled together and made this friendly little community. Everyone working together and looking out for each other, and we've some really kind people here."
Carlos leaps over the trench bordering the freeway and lands with a light thump. No zombs in sight, so he takes a minute to sit down and breathe and check his shoelaces, before jogging onwards, keeping to the clear edges where he can, relishing the smooth asphalt.
Say what you like about the broken, uneven ground of the land around the farm: the lumpy earth, the scattered holes threatening broken ankles with every step - they, at least, take concentration. Here, the freeway - unbroken, still, save for the occasional crack where wildflowers are sprouting upwards - it's an easy thing to lope along, and it allows the mind to wander.
It'll be overgrown, to match the kind of artwork Carlos had liked, in a few decades' time. There'll be huge cracks in the concrete, rotting cars spilling every which way into the ditches, birds nesting in the seats, nature taking back the land. Now, it looks ordinary enough to fool Carlos: for a moment, it's as though the apocalypse had never started. The cars have simply wiped out on the road. Their owners have left to look at something over the hill, all of them together. They'll be back soon.
It is very, very quiet.
thump, thump, thump go Carlos' shoes.
He hopes that this is a pace he can keep up. He hopes he never trips, or a blister doesn't suddenly burst. That he's able to run fast enough, and for long enough, to get back if needed -
He is a very long way from the town. He is all alone, save for a voice in his head.
Quite suddenly, Carlos reaches up to catch the headset, feel it solid on his ear. He twists the volume dial, calls up Cecil's appearance in his mind. He remembers.
Cecil, bless him, chooses that moment to speak again. "All looks normal from here", he murmurs. "I won't be able to see you in the underpass, but you're clear until them. Be careful, in any case, all right?"
Carlos nods, unsure as to whether Cecil and see him, and deciding it doesn't matter. He goes on.
Thousands of people had driven out of the cities, clogged up the roads with their engines running and their cars heavy with useless supplies. They hadn't all run out of gas at the same time: individuals, friends, families, all had carried what they could out of their useless cars, and stood at the sides of the road, hoping for a lift. Many had simply walked onwards. Those who had had the foresight to strap a bike or two to the car had made it further, at least until they were mugged for it or worse. In the end, all of them had either ended up in settlements like Mullins or Night Vale, or, well, hadn't.
For the first couple of months, Mullins scouts had come across people who had been determined to survive on their own: holing up in lofts and basements, smashing stairs and stockpiling supplies as though they were in a movie. Eventually, they'd come to realise that none of them were the protagonist in this particular action flick. They'd come to Mullins, and to Night Vale too, and to countless other little pockets of humanity: brought with them their tools and their supplies and their humility, laid them down on the communal pile. More hadn't appeared in a while.
Runners had come through here to siphon what fuel remains they could from the tanks long ago. Carlos has a mission, and he isn't going to be distracted, but he does reach through a window to quickly snag a couple of books from a dashboard. Steve had said that Tamika was amassing a library: she'd like these.
"That's it, right up ahead", Cecil says, soft and steady. "We've swept though already for fuel and ordinary supplies: that means you can concentrate on the ambulance. Most people here abandoned their cars, but we think the van must have crashed: it's up against a pillar on the road."
Carlos takes a breath, lets it out, and goes. The keys shift in his pocket: this won't take long, he can be in and out in -
There it is. It's... dirty: it looks so very wrong, for something that he's used to imagining as white and gleaming, speeding through traffic lights. It's somehow worse even than seeing smashed office buildings or dark streetlights: this is a fundamental, vital thing, and it's broken.
"Careful. Be careful. Keep a watch out." It could be Cecil's voice, or his own: it's a whisper, and it's an anchor. He focuses on the sound as he finds the keys, readies the axe, locates the keyhole.
Not that key. Not that one, either. "It's okay. It's okay." That's definitely his own voice, now - Cecil won't have reception down here. Get it done, get out, get back to the daylight and to Cecil's voice -
There: the lock clicks. Carlos grips the axe and opens the door, and it's there, there's a zombie right there -
- it's not moving. Too rotten, perhaps: there are deep gouges in every visible limb, and barely any face remaining. He looks over at the passenger seat, trying and failing not to jump: its companion is the same. They're not moving. Slowly, he registers the smell: sour, pervasive. They must have been here since the van crashed six months previously, died and reanimated and chewed themselves to the bone all while strapped into these seats.
Well. Might as well be sure. Carlos carefully, precisely, smashes in both their heads witb the blunt side of his axe, and face set, eases the one from the driver's seat out onto the road. Ugh.
He climbs in, trying not to look too closely at the mess in the other seat, and looks through the reinforced glass to the back. Two more shadowy, misshapen figures; a few open cupboards, and bottles all over the floor. Carlos closes the door quietly, and checks the glove compartment first: there's a small first-aid kit, and a protein bar - the things last for years, he could swear there's nothing organic in there - he shrugs and stuffs both into his backpack.
The corner, Tamika had advised. Double checking the closed door and bracing himself for the noise, Carlos swings the axe into the glass.
It cracks. Two more swings, wincing, and the glass shatters inwards. Heart pounding now, pent-up adrenaline flooding his body, Carlos scrambles into the back.
Quickly, now: the sooner he can be done here, the sooner he can get out back to the daylight and the air and away from this smell -
The corpses in the back aren't moving either. He smashed their skulls as well, and tries to wipe off the axe on the stretcher. Lays it down to use both hands, now - there are pill bottles and vials scattered all over the floor, and he gathers everything methodically, not bothering to read the labels. He reaches under the stretcher at some more shapes - ugh, that one's a hand, but unmoving - and, more bottles. Morphine, these, and he feels a spark of hope, all of a sudden: these are useful. He hopes he can get them back to the town.
Up, and into the cupboards: there are splints, bandages, four adrenaline pens, some oxygen masks - he looks at the oxygen cylinder, half his own height and weight and without wheels, then shrugs and packs the masks anyway. Sugar mix, more protein bars, a couple of old magazines. He's racing his own fear, now, snagging all he can before there's no choice but to bolt for the sunlight. Little longer. Little more. There's a drawer full of long strips of wrapped-up needles and syringes: the drawers go in whole, and, just in time, he remembers to add a sharps bin. Enough, now - time to go - he tries the main doors at the back, rattles at them, realises there's a bolt and gets them open, and there's the light coming in from the sky, he jumps out, he lands on solid asphalt, ready to sprint -
That's when something grabs his ankle.
Without thinking, Carlos shrieks. A moment later, and he cuts himself off, horrified at the noise. He kicks out at whatever-it-is: looks down, it's a crawler, ugh, the face is a long way from him yet, and it's a simple matter for his to drop the axe-head into its skull. He shakes off the hand, and that's when he hears it.
There's a shuffling coming towards him, from the other side of the van.
The shuffling doesn't sound like - like, just one. And then, there's an absolutely unmistakeable moan.
Carlos unfreezes, hefts his axe, grips his backpack, and runs. Weaving between the stopped cars, he glances back, and it's a whole group of them - they must have caught the stench of that one he'd thrown out of the van - they're shambling, bumping up against cars, they're slow. Carlos almost breathes out relief, and then he sees something else.
One of them. One at the back is faster. It's blocked by the bodies, but give it a few more seconds, and that one - freshly dead, and some spark of intelligence, still - will be in chase.
Carlos swears, loudly, and runs.
He bursts out into the daylight at the same time as his headset comes alive once again, Cecil's voice blessedly clear - "when you're out, I'll just keep on in the - oh, you're out! There you are - oh, Dana, he's running, there must be something there - oh, no, it's a sprinter - run, Carlos!"
Carlos zigzags between cars, wondering if he should stay on the asphalt or make the leap across to the dry grassland. There's a ditch at the side of the road, that might stop the thing - but the grass will also slow him down, and he'll be risking a broken ankle, and then he'll be finished for sure -
Carlos stays on the road. He thinks the moaning's fading: the scattered vehicles are working in his favour. Onwards: he can run, he reminds himself. He can fight. He still has a gun, loaded, if all else -
"That's great, Carlos, keep going! You're doing really well!", Cecil says. "You're leaving him behind: clever of you to stay on the road, they're far slower with obstacles - now, I don't want to worry you, but we think that one's noise has attracted a few more. I'll never understand how they can hear so well over these distances, they just coalesce together like nobody's business - it's okay, there are a few of them, but they're all just shambling. None as fast as our friend here: keep on going as you are, and you'll outrun them easily. I'll be right here."
Carlos hasn't the breath to swear aloud. He takes a second to swing the backpack fully onto his shoulders, gazes out at the miles of scattered cars, and runs on.
Two miles of road. Two miles of scrubland. And the zombies don't give up. Carlos can't run the whole way, it's impossible - he runs, then walks, then runs, and eventually he turns, aims carefully, and puts a bullet through the brain of the sprinter after him. There's already a group on his tail, shuffling alongside him in the grass and on the road: they're making enough noise to attract more as it is.
Breathing a little easier, he presses on. Stops to catch his breath for a moment at the end of the road, then jumps the ditch and runs on the scrub.
"That's great, you're fine, you're okay, little bit more at that pace and you're home safe in no time", Cecil intones, repeating himself, chanting in his ear. Carlos no longer notices the words: he's simply grateful for the company. Less time thinking about the zoms behind him. More time focusing on Cecil's grounding voice and thinking about keeping his ankles intact.
It occurs to Carlos that he could also climb up one of the trees and await help. He has an axe, and enough bullets for this small group, at least. He has options, if running fails. He runs on.
It's an eternity before he sees the town; it's no time at all. He spots the radio tower first, as Cecil's still speaking - he's saying something about Lucy making Carlos a pie, any flavour he likes, just as long as he gets back safe - he sees the tower, and then the gates, and then there's gunfire all around him just as there was last week and he's cleared the gates, they're closing behind him. He's back.
He doesn't collapse this time. He stands, both hands tight on his rucksack straps, and watches the gates lower. He stands there, breathing in the air, until the gates land with a thud, flush against the earth, and the gunfire stops, and he can see the zombies no more.